What the “Right to Literacy” Debate Reveals About Education Inequities

By Madeline Goodman

In a class action lawsuit brought by students in the Detroit Public School District against the state of Michigan, Federal District Judge Stephen Murphy III declared that access to literacy is not a “fundamental right” protected by the U.S. Constitution. This ruling will do little to solve the core issue at the heart of this case, as well as many others like it across the country — some Americans are clearly denied access to quality education.

Evidence from multiple sources demonstrates that not all Americans are given the chance to acquire the literacy skills they need to fully function in our society or participate in our democracy. We see this in reports of districts with insufficient teachers and support staff, roach-infested classrooms, deteriorating buildings, and lack of textbooks and critical supplies. Data also underscore how achievement gaps of children and adults are strongly tied to socioeconomic opportunities of parents and their communities.

It might seem too broad a stretch to go from America in 2018 to the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction era to contextualize this problem, but there are some pointed and important similarities. Literacy was — and continues to be — a central concern, given that it is inextricably tied to the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. In order to fully appreciate how true this is one need only review the anti-literacy laws enacted in southern states during the first half of the nineteenth century — laws that made it illegal to teach slaves of any age to read or write.

Literacy was — and continues to be — a central concern, given that it is inextricably tied to the acquisition of knowledge.

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In 1866, shortly after the Civil War, Frederick Douglass made clear that providing education to America’s new citizens would be critical to the success of reconstructing the Union. He wrote in The Atlantic that the Civil War had been “highly instructive” in making at least one thing clear: “no republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” Rebellion, Douglass concluded, is “an impressive teacher.” It is telling that Douglass frequently couched his reflections on the Civil War, and the work left to be done to unify the country and move beyond the scourge of slavery, in educational terms. Recent scholars agree, noting that the promise of Reconstruction, embodied in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, had at its core the belief that new citizens of the United States would be given meaningful education by their states. This promise — even today — remains unfulfilled.

Denying certain “classes,” to use Douglass’ term, access to literacy and knowledge appears to be the reality we are again confronting, albeit in a new guise. We see the proof of this in the data that ETS has a hand in creating, analyzing and reporting. In fact, Plaintiff’s in the Detroit Public Schools case used the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which ETS develops for the federal Department of Education, to show that the Detroit Public School system performs lower in reading and math in grades 4 and 8 than any other district in the nation for which NAEP data are available. The district lacks teachers and resources (such as books and pencils), and is filled with classrooms that are cold in winter and crawling with rats and bugs, conditions that, as a whole, Judge Murphy deemed “nothing short of devastating.” Detroit is hardly alone. Research at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis has shown the persistent links between geography and income throughout the country, where wealth and race have helped create a segregated category of students who are effectively denied access to the resources that we know promote learning.

Denying certain ‘classes,’ to use Douglass’ term, access to literacy and knowledge appears to be the reality we are again confronting, albeit in a new guise.

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ETS researchers have long warned about the implications of this in a series of papers meant to serve as a wakeup call. In 2007, ETS published America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing our Nation’s Future, which examined how the divergent skills distribution, changing economy, and demographic trends will continue to erode the ideal of opportunity in America if we do not enact clear policies to stem the tide. America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, and Too Big to Fail: Millennials on the Margins, which I co-authored with ETS Researcher Anita Sands, provide further evidence of this problem, showing clear links between the skills of our young adults, and inequitable distributions of opportunity to acquire and maintain sufficient levels in these skills. In fact, we found that nearly half of America’s millennials (ages 16–34) —around 36 million — are attempting the transition to adult roles with low literacy skills, and more than half — about 46 million — are doing so with low numeracy skills.

 

A society that drives too hard a wedge between those who are privileged and those who are not will struggle to sustain a healthy, well-functioning democracy.

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We have by now accepted as fact that we live in a time when human capital, or knowledge, is at a premium. Yet, as another ETS report, Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America, made clear, the deck is already stacked against those who are not provided with opportunities to develop and augment their skills. Advantages and disadvantages only compound over time, and the distance between the haves and have-nots widens if ignored. Data from many of the surveys and assessments we work on at ETS show that high levels of cognitive skills lead not only to better paying jobs, but also to other positive life outcomes (e.g., health and well-being), and solid connections to our political and social institutions.

These data go a long way to supporting the sentiment that Douglass expressed more than 150 years ago: A society that drives too hard a wedge between those who are privileged and those who are not will struggle to sustain a healthy, well-functioning democracy.

 

Madeline Goodman is an ETS Researcher and author of numerous reports focused on education and measures of human and social capital.